Back in October 2005, when Postar announced that it had succeeded in poaching James Whitmore from Experience Communications as its new managing director, some of his friends and former colleagues were moved to speculate on whether or not he was still possessed of a full set of proverbial marbles.
True, an agency start-up such as Experience had not been exactly to Whitmore's taste. But still. Running a joint industry media research body can be a thankless task, even when there's consensus among the major participants.
At that point, however, Postar was not exactly the last word in unanimity. When the Postar set-up superseded the medium's previous audience measurement system in 1996, its mission statement was all about innovation. Its biggest step forward, for instance, was a method of adjusting the perceived impact of a site depending on its visibility - but Postar also aimed to find a way of embracing all sorts of out-of-home inventory, beyond traditional roadside billboards.
Progress was slow, however, despite the growing importance of transport formats, from bus-sides to Tube station sites. The problem boiled down to the fact that the billboard contractors wanted to protect the status quo. Postar worked for them and they didn't want its value as a stable currency in any way undermined.
If transport was to be embraced, it would have to be as a bolt-on to the existing survey. An easy task, you might think, given the crude nature of the existing Postar methodology, which basically involved asking a panel of people to detail the journeys they took each day.
But transport wasn't at all easy, as it turned out. And by the time Whitmore arrived at Postar, replacing Helen Tridgell, who'd left in August 2005, the first transport sector additions, which had been promised by Christmas 2004, were already a year late. Worryingly, there was no clear consensus in the medium about the best way forward - and indeed a "bodge job" mentality was endemic, with many on the contractor side arguing that it could all be fixed by a few judicious tweaks.
That's why last week's Postar announcements are so remarkable. The industry, in short, has grasped a rather painful nettle.
1. The cornerstone of the proposed new Postar set-up is a hard-won agreement, ratified more than a year ago, to increase its funding threefold to £10 million. The contractors in the Outdoor Advertising Association (the majors include Clear Channel, JCDecaux, CBS Outdoor and Titan) pick up around 80 per cent of the tab, the outdoor media specialists in the outdoor division of the IPA (principally Kinetic and Posterscope) contribute the rest.
2. For the first time in the history of the medium, a research contract was put out to meaningful competitive tender. Last week, a contract was awarded to Ipsos Mori with additional technological input from MGE Data.
3. Outdoor research is essentially "people flow" research: a site's audience delivery is based on how many eyeballs pass it each day, modified by a factor indicating how eye-catching it is - how big it is or close to the carriageway; or whether, for instance, it's lit or has moving picture elements.
The new contract, which will begin producing data in 2009, will provide more accurate measures of both people flow and visibility. Instead of asking a panel of respondents about their travel habits, individuals will now be issued with GPS tracking devices that will record every move they make. This will be merged with traffic data produced by local government and other institutions.
4. A new visibility study will use eye-tracking technology to investigate how people scan different outdoor ad formats in various situations. It will embrace drivers, passengers and pedestrians.
5. The survey's panel will be expanded threefold to 20,000, enabling it to embrace a wider spectrum of media and locations, including London Underground, rail, buses and taxis as well as traditional roadside. This means a greater focus on the public concourse spaces that have become so important to the medium - airports, railway stations and shopping malls.
6. For the first time, outdoor audience data will be presented in a way that allows easier integration with other research sources such as TGI and IPA TouchPoints.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
- You don't spend all this extra money without some faint hope of a return - or at the very least, a sense that you've secured your revenue base from attack by other media sectors. Out-of-home contractors maintain that their medium has now taken a lead in terms of accountability. Postar, it is argued, delivers a more accurate notion of the audience's exposure to advertising rather than the more vague measures of "opportunities to see" provided by joint industry research in other media sectors.
- But television will be raising its game in this regard and online advertising has its own claims to absolute transparency and accountability - so Postar's evolution is timely.
- The outdoor advertising sector believes that, thanks to fragmenting television audiences allied to changing work and leisure habits, it will have an increasingly compelling proposition as the century unfolds. Its prospects certainly won't be harmed if its underlying strengths are backed up by robust data.
- "This is an important step forward," Nick Mawditt, the global director of insight and marketing at Kinetic, argues. "It is important that the medium shows it understands the significance of increased rigour and accountability."
- The new Postar might make it easier to plan outdoor. On the other hand, any radical revamping of a research currency tends to throw up (sometimes alarming) anomalies. There could be confusing times ahead for advertisers.